Heaven, Ho And Halong
April 20, 2016





PATRIOTS and sages live forever, if the memory of their exploits goes on.

This is what memorials are for. When the going gets tough, the knowledge of victories past and the wisdom of the ages also unite and inspire a people.

In Hanoi, a go-to memorial is the Ho Chi Minh Complex. The six-in-one treat houses the 1) Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum, 2) Presidential Palace, 3) House No. 54 where Ho lived and worked as president for four years, 4) the House on Stilts he moved to in the last 11 years of his life, 5) the One-Pillar Pagoda and 6) the Ho Chi Minh Museum.

Ho led Vietnam’s revolt against French colonial rule, establishing Vietnam as a republic in 1945, serving as its first president, and seeing the French off once and for all in 1954.

Though Ho wanted to be cremated, his body was instead embalmed, and in the style of other Communist leaders like Vladimir Lenin and Mao Zedong, publicly displayed in a marble and granite mausoleum we entered in respectful silence.

Emerging from the mausoleum, we, journalists, asked matter-of-factly, “How do you know it’s really him and not a wax figure?”

Our Vietnamese tour guide Hung assured us it was the man himself, saying Russian technology was regularly used to maintain the remains.

Ho’s mausoleum stands at the center of Ba Dinh Square, where in 1945 he had read Vietnam’s Proclamation of Independence.

House No. 54

Close by is the Presidential Palace built in neoclassical style in the early 1900s as the Palace of Indochina’s Governor General. When the Vietnamese took over the mustard yellow building in 1954, Ho refused to live there, using it only to receive state guests.

He chose to live instead in a modest structure called House No. 54, also colored yellow.

“What’s with the yellow?” we asked.

“Yellow is the French colonial color,” Hung replied. “It represents power.”

Ho later moved to a wooden house on stilts modeled after the homes of the ethnic tribes he had lived with in the mountains of northern Vietnam during the years of revolt against the French. Steps from the house, an extension dining room doubled as the entrance to a bomb shelter.

Vietnam’s first president may have had modest digs, but he traveled in style. Three of his cars are on display in the garage: two given by the Soviet Union—a stately black 1954 ZIS with serious grille and headlamps, and an olive green 1955 Pobeda—and a gray 1964 Peugeot 404 courtesy of Vietnamese residents in New Caledonia (France).

A Peugeot? I guess he had no hard feelings against the French.

Pillar of hope

At the famed One-Pillar Pagoda shaped like a lotus flower, we inspected the single stone pillar supporting it representing the stem. The tiny wooden temple was built in 1049 by Emperor Ly Thai Tong, who, yearning for a son, was said to have seen in a dream a Buddhist deity giving him a baby boy laid on a lotus flower. He soon fathered a baby boy, and in gratitude, built the pagoda as a shrine to Quan Am, the Goddess of Mercy.

Our tour guide swears by the efficacy of the prayers made at the shrine. He said he prayed for a baby boy there, twice, and he now has two sons. The problem is he now wants a baby girl, but he doesn’t know where to pray to get one.

Temple of Literature

Emperor Ly’s son, Ly Thanh Tong, built the sprawling Temple of Literature dedicated to Confucius, sages and Confucian scholars that we visited next. Built in 1070, it hosted Vietnam’s first national university, the Imperial Academy, which educated crown princes, senior bureaucrats, and Vietnam’s elite and most talented men.

From the 15th to 18th centuries, 82 royal exams were held here, the king himself providing the questions. On 82 stone steles commemorating the exams are inscribed the names of the 1,307 graduates (doctoral laureates) who passed them. There was great motivation to succeed. The best student received a title and properties, and became the king’s adviser and son-in-law.

In one of the halls in the five-hectare complex, an altar featured what looked like nine-foot-tall mythical creatures that no man, woman or child seemed to pass up on the chance to rub from top to bottom. I later asked Hung about the creatures.

“You mean the phoenix standing on the turtle?” he replied. “The turtle is for longevity; the phoenix is for beauty.”

“Beauty?!” I gasped, my dismay at not having accessed the creature’s powers showing.

With 11 years of tour guiding experience behind him, Hung pacified me with the words: “Oh, you’re beautiful enough already.”

Three kings are honored at the Temple: the one who founded the temple; his son who founded the Imperial Academy in 1076, setting the foundation for the development of Confucianism in Vietnam; and the one who ordered the national exams held every three years and erected the first doctor steles in 1484 to honor talent.

Stone and heaven

Over lunch at the Red House Restaurant, we had a cultural experience of a different kind when our waiter showed his skills not only in throwing in the ingredients of our seafood stew in the right order in the cooking pot on our table, but also in gyrating and energetically flexing his body in a dance challenge with a member of our group.

The next day, we got “stoned” feasting our eyes on the pearl, ruby and sapphire bling at the stops our tour bus made on the four-hour drive to Halong Bay.

Halong Bay, 165 kilometers north of Hanoi, is a Unesco World Heritage Site for its aesthetic and geological value. Only a stoic would not be moved by the karst landscape of 1,969 islands by turns peeking out of and towering over the 1,553-square-kilometer bay.

Limestone makes up 90 percent of the islands, creating the Thien Cung cave, formed over 11,000 to 700,000 years, in Dau Go island.

“Caves are the result of water seeping into cracks and slowly eroding the limestone,” a board on the site read.

Thien Cung means “Heavenly Palace,” and it is not because of the 200 steps tourists must negotiate to see the cave, making it feel like heaven when they finally get there. Rather, it refers to the cave’s beauty and structure.

Back on our boat, the “Hailong Dream,” moving through Halong Bay with barely a ripple, our group talked cinema, politics and plots with islets called the “Fighting Cocks” and the “Duck” as backdrop.

Queue blues

A day later, we were back at Hanoi’s Noi Bai International Airport for our return flight to Manila, feeling like we had known each other for years, even if it had only been four days.

With an hour to kill before the check-in counters opened, our group formed a queue at the Burger King in the terminal for a quick dinner. But our trip ending on the wrong side of my menstrual cycle, I was irritable and wanted real food.

Going all around the terminal to find the only restaurant serving noodles and rice meals full, I reluctantly dragged myself and my luggage back to Burger King.

Checking the menu board, I groused, “What? No chicken meal? Don’t they serve anything other than burgers?”

Ian of Sun.Star Pampanga, nursing a severe sleep deficit from trawling Hanoi’s night market till the wee hours, rolled his eyes upward, pointed to the signboard and said, “Hello? Burger King?”

“That doesn’t mean all they can serve is burgers. They serve Coke. That’s not a burger,” I shot back. I ordered a cheeseburger.

Lining up at the immigration counter, I grumbled again at how we could have coasted through this process if they had just opened two more counters.

Exasperated, Ian said: “You be a dominatrix in the Philippines. You lead the country. Invade Vietnam. Then you get to decide what the Burger King here serves and how the immigration system works.”

This is what happens when you put two irritable journalists together. They still make sense.

Okay, Ian. Thanks for the suggestion. I’ll consider it.

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